I don't buy the traditional distinction being one of degree of certainty. If one doesn't know, then they are denying the validity of His holy word, which is an act of rejection. I would say the difference is in emphasis, how strongly one feels offended, or threatened by those who believe in God. I have had no problem describing myself as an atheist, and expressing this in public, in a loud clear voice.
One manifestation of my atheism is my opposition to to teaching the controversy over "Intelligent design" in public schools. So, I was encouraged by the Dover decision rejecting this in 2005. In this case and other discussions of this issue, Intelligent Design was always contrasted with Darwinism, the principles defined in his 1859 book, "Origin of the Species"
Let me back up a bit. Several months ago, at the time that I was reading a fascinating book, Life Ascending" on current research in molecular bio chemistry, with a focus on evolution, I read an announcement of an open house at the nearby "Creation Museum." I cleared the day, and decided to attend. This is a museum dedicated to advancing "young earth creationism" based on the conviction that the universe is no more than 7000 years old and created in seven 24 hour days.
After the first lecture by a biologist who presented a factual taxonomy of the pathogens, antigens, viruses and antibodies of the secondary immune system, I asked him a question. I forget what it was, but it was respectful of his religious belief since I felt that he showed humility in saying he was one of four that he knows who share it in the entire field. (This describes my response to the two lectures) As I was leaving I was approached by the man who had introduced the program, whom I learned was the sponsor of the museum, Tom Cantor. Those interested my interactions with this fascinating man may want to view this video blog that I created on a visit that we made to his antibody facility just south of the border in Tacate Mexico.
We live in a world of spin, predators and con artists. The most egregious scams are perpetrated by those of the same ethnic background as their marks, as they feel they are among family and make the mistake of trusting. And Tom and I are both from the same Jewish background. But if Tom is trying to scam me, it sure is overkill, as his financial success is no illusion.
I'm convinced that this man is only guilty of sincerely attempting to prevent my having a fate that will cause me eternal suffering. I'm also aware that his desire to bring me into the fold is also a confirmation of his faith, that although he expresses absolute certainty, must be subject to a degree of doubt.
With all of my hyper rational rejection of the supernatural, my decades of inculcation in religion being the opium of the masses, all of my identification with others of my perspective; the absolute sincerity of this man is having an effect on me.
The immediate effect is that I am no longer an ATHEIST, but am now an atheist. Yeah, there is a difference. The one concrete change that exemplifies this is my attitude toward "Intelligent Design. or I.D. " I did not read the full Dover decision, but I suspect that I.D. is not being presented by its advocates in the correct manner. Just as Charles Darwin first enunciated the principles of Evolution by Natural Selection, it appears that concurrent with this, he articulated the principles of what was to be known as Intelligent Design.
I now feel that I.D. should be taught in public schools, separated from science, based on the principles of
"Nonoverlapping Magisteria" as articulated by the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Here's where Charles Darwin defined this principle in the chapter "modes of transition" in "Origins of the Species":
It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye with a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous?
Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man? If we must compare the eye to an optical instrument, we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with spaces filled with fluid, and with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form.
Further we must suppose that there is a power, represented by natural selection or the survival of the fittest, always intently watching each slight alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully preserving each which, under varied circumstances, in any way or in any degree, tends to produce a distincter image. We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; each to be preserved until a better one is produced, and then the old ones to be all destroyed.
In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?
This set the principle, that all that is discovered by science may, if one chooses, be viewed as the design of the Creator, with no impediment to understanding the processes of the natural process. This is now the explicit teaching of the Catholic church, with only the requirement in the belief that God, at some point intervened in merging a soul with the corporeal mantle.
This is not faithful enough for Tom, and it will be too much for many here, as it was for me before my recent experiences. But now I accept the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools, not as fact, but as a belief of many people that is consistent with scientific discovery. If it is taught it should not be as a refutation of science, but as something completely different, that neither adds or detracts from the scientific process of discovery.
I've undergone more changes. I now have a broader view of religion that includes both the benefits of traditional ones, along with the dangers of those secular institutions that inadvertently take on aspects of religions, the very worst aspects. It has even resulted in my conceptualization of the recent Health Care Law as promoting, and worse, establishment of a religion, as sketched out in this recent blog.
And in a way, I have gained an understanding why Tom, rare among those of his educational, ethnic and economic background, had embraced this particular strand of fundamentalist Christianity. Ironically, if he were of a more fitting progressive denomination he would have no need to expend the emotional effort to save me, and by doing so divulge so much of his own life.
Tom Cantor, having achieved a unique success of not only founding, but then managing a complex multinational science based enterprise, could be a member in high standing of the elite of our society. Yet, he chooses rather to expend his efforts, and a good deal of his wealth into what is a fringe, and ridiculed, interpretation of literal Christianity.
He is an aberration, a throwback, a mutation, but like the mutations that have formed all humans they have the nature of being Pleiotropic, meaning having multiple effects, some beneficial and others harmful. (Clue: it's the reason we all age and die.) This has narrowed his focus; he rejects not only the consensus of modern evolutionary science, but also the norm that one's success is defined by material wealth. He seems to have no secrets, as his openness to me were not the actions of one who calculates the risk-value of every interaction.
So, I can't think about this man, or even fundamentalist Christians in the same way I did before I met him. In fact I am holding back on some of the criticisms I have about his activities, mainly because he has heard them all before, and secondly I want to understand him better. And then there's the the story told by Woody Allen that explains how I get a certain deep pleasure out of Tom's effort to save me from eternal damnation. You've probably heard it:
The man goes to the shrink and say he's at his wits end, that his wife thinks she's a chicken, all the time, "Cluck, cluck, cluck" And the scratching, the clucking, it's driving me nuts. The doc say, why don't you just explain to her that she's a human, without wings or feathers, and certainly not a chicken. The man thinks for a minute and then confides, "I would, but we need the eggs."